Monday, April 18, 2011

Weekend projects

We had a a busy weekend catching up on projects that had long been over due. As much as I love gardening, I’d rather be planning or planting than doing grunt work, but without the latter, it’s hard to do the former.

Over the years, the bark we’d used as mulch in the planting strip outside the front yard fence had broken down or been washed away by the winter rains, and in quite a few spots the soil had begun to look like this:

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Cracked soil due to lack of mulch

This planting strip gets full sun for 6-8 hours. Without a protective mulch, the plants would fry in our hot summer weather since water would just run off without really soaking in (the planting strip slants down to the street).

On Friday I ordered bark from Dixon Landscape Materials in nearby Dixon, CA and on Saturday morning we went to work.

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2 cubic yards of bark in our driveway
(the decomposed granite is for another project that was supposed to happen this weekend but didn’t)
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In addition to keeping the soil cool and minimizing evaporation of precious water, fresh bark looks and smells awesome
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This is the emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’)
which I recently planted
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I also mulched the stock tanks we installed last December

Another chore that really needed to be done was to pressure-wash the flagstone walkway and patio in the front of our house. Installed in the summer of 2006, this flagstone has had no maintenance other than occasional sweeping. Since this past winter had been a long and rainy one, a lot of grime and moss had settled on the stone, making it look permanently dirty and dingy.

Our neighbor (the best neighbor in the world, I might add, and not just because she makes awesome cakes and cookies) let me use her pressure washer and so I spent a couple of hours on Sunday spritzing all the grime away.

The difference is like night and day. While I had known that the flagstone was dirty, I hadn’t really known how dirty until it was clean again.

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Before and after
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Front porch after cleaning. I love how saturated and shiny wet flagstone is. Too bad it dries to a dull finish and a much lighter color. I might just try one of those sealants that give you that wet look, even though the ones I’ve seen make the stone look like cheap plastic.
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Front walkway after pressure washing

The final project of the weekend was the easiest and quickest of them all. We love to eat and cook Mexican food, and in the last few years I’ve been experimenting with moles, the rich sauces that are the hallmark of Mexican regional cuisine. Many use chili peppers that are very hard to find in the U.S., and some—like the famous chilhuacle from Oaxaca—are hard to source even in Mexico. Instead of always using substitutes that are never quite the real thing, I decided to grow my own specialty peppers from seeds. My original intention had been to start the seeds indoor in January or February, but somehow time got away from me. Now it’s mid-April and our daytime temperatures are consistently in the 70s so the soil should be warm enough to sow straight in the ground.

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Since our four raised vegetable beds were empty except for some snap peas, I appropriated half of the biggest bed and sowed the varieties shown above. I believe there were 15 or 20 seeds in each package, but I don’t expect them all to germinate. In fact, if I get 5 or each, I’d be happy. Germination can be pretty slow so I’m trying to be patient while I keep the soil moist. I’ll keep you updated on my great Mexican pepper experiment of 2011!

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

First cactus flower of the year, part 2

In yesterday's post I showed a photo of our first blooming cactus of the year, Parodia werneri subsp. werneri. Today the second flower (out three) opened, and I’m so excited that I want to show you some more photos.

Please bear in mind that this cactus is only 2½ inches wide and 1¾ inches tall. The flowers are almost as tall as the plant! They have such a metallic sheen, that they almost look fake.

They’re only open for about four hours in the middle of the day. They’re fully open by noon and fully closed by 4 pm. When they’re closed, they look relative plain and unassuming—they certainly don’t give away the beauty hidden within.

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Tomorrow, I promise, it’ll be back to regular programming. No cacti, just coverage of good old weekend yard work, and some sowing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

First cactus flower of the year

I don’t have time for a long post today, but I really wanted to show you this photo. It’s our first cactus flower of the year. This cactus is in one of the planter boxes I just installed on top of the fence that surrounds our front yard—see this post for details.

What is remarkable that I just bought this plant last week at the Ruth Bancroft Garden and here it is, blooming already (it did have three developing buds last week).

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The cactus is a Parodia werneri subsp. werneri. It used to be called Notocactus uebelmannius, but underwent a name change when the International Organization for Succulent Plant Study (IOS) merged the genus Notocactus into the genus Parodia in 1989. This kind of taxonomical musical chairs happens fairly regularly as new research results are published. I must admit that while I have some interest in (or tolerance for) taxonomy, my eyes start to glaze over when I delve too deeply into it.

All I really need to know is that Parodia werneri subsp. werneri:

  • Doesn’t seem to have a common name in English that would make referring to it quite a bit easier
  • Hails from southern Brazil
  • Has a solitary growth habit
  • Will get to about 6 inches in diameter
  • Likes to be watered regularly in the summer but must be kept dry in the winter because it rots easily
  • Is hardy to 25°F
  • Has electric purple flowers that appear in mid-spring

And it’s beautiful in the eyes of this beholder, which for most people is all that matters.

After all, most gardeners wouldn’t go to the trouble of caring for a plant as ugly as this one.

Friday, April 15, 2011

More spring color

If you live on the West Coast, I’m sure you know what I mean when I say this has been one weird spring. Temperatures have been below normal for an unusually long period of time, so plants we expect to see in early to mid-March are just now peeking their heads out of the ground (like lily of the valley). It’s been so cold at night that we haven’t even planted tomatoes yet although that’s on the list for this weekend.

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Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), blooming as reliably as ever

Poking around in the garden at lunchtime today (yes, I did check for more bamboo shoots), I kept shaking my head at how confused the normal growth pattern has been this year. But things are finally getting into full swing, and once daytime temperatures reliably stay above 70°F, perennials like echinaceas, salvias, and rudbeckias will finally catch up to where they would normally be in the middle of April.

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Coral aloe (Aloe striata) blooming for the first time ever. The red flower spike on the left is from a kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos flavidus).
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Our red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) are finally starting to bloom. I do have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this plant: I really like the flowers, short-lived as they are, but the leaves are pretty unattractive in my eyes.
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Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) growing in between succulents in our back yard. The nasturtiums were here when we bought the house in 1997, and they have reseeded year after year. Many different things have been planted in this narrow bed over the years, but the nasturtiums have remained.
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Coral bell in full bloom (Heuchera x brizoides 'Firefly'). The plant behind it is our remaining Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha).
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Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’. It is supposed to withstand our hot summers better than most über-engineered heuchera hybrids, but the colors still fade to an unattractive brown by the middle of the summer.
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Variegated flowering maple (Abutilon pictum 'Thompsonii') growing behind—and on top of—a giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum)
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Newly emerged Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra'),
as electric as can be. The tips of the blades will eventually turn dark red.
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More ornamental grasses starting their initial growth spurt:
Korean feather grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha)…
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…and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’)
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Variegated Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans 'Stairway to Heaven'), hard to beat when it comes to foliage. This is a new addition to our woodland garden, and I hope it will thrive.
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More stragglers arriving late on the scene this year:
Hosta plantaginea ‘Aphrodite’…
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…and lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). This is a transplant from my mother-in-law’s garden in Mount Shasta and does remarkably well here in our much warmer climate.
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And finally a plant that I love as much as I hate it: peppermint (Mentha x piperita). It’s growing so fast at the moment, it feels I could sit there and watch it. Aside from our running bamboos—which are confined to containers—this is easily the most invasive plant in our yard. We use peppermint for cooking and drinks (think mojitos!) but do try to keep on top of it because its rhizomes can travel long distances FAST. Luckily, it’s easy to pull out.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fence-top cactus planters

A while ago I snagged two rectangular 30" x 6" planter boxes at a warehouse sale for $1 each. It turns out they were designed for office partition walls and originally cost in the vicinity of $75. Yikes!

I didn’t like the original charcoal gray color so I spray-painted the planters desert sand—a much more attractive choice for what I was planning on doing with them.

I didn’t have the original $25 mounting brackets, but a quick trip to the hardware store and $2.50 later I had all I needed: 1" L-shaped brackets and short wood screws that allowed me to attach the planters to the top of the 4 ft. fence that surrounds our front yard.

The final step was the most fun: putting the cacti in the planters. Since I want to be able to swap the plants out as needed (or desired), I simply placed the potted cacti into the boxes and filled them up with small river pebbles. The extra weight will prevent the containers from being knocked over or stolen.

I think the final result is rather nice. Everybody walking up the driveway to our front door will be able to look at these little gems. Several of them are getting ready to bloom, which will be an added attraction.

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Both planter boxes seen from the driveway
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Left to right:

1. Opuntia microdasys 'Albata' (aka Bunny Ears)
2. Parodia leninghausii
3. Mammillaria camptotricha  var. marnier-lapostollei
4. Opuntia microdasys 'Albata' (aka Bunny Ears)

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Left to right:

1. Mammillaria prolifera (aka Texas Nipple Cactus)
2. Thelocactus hexaedrophorus var. lloydii
3. Parodia uebelmannia
4. Stenocactus nova
'Palmillas'

Aside from the Bunny Ears and the Texas Nipple Cactus, I got these cacti at our local Ace Hardware store. Their source is Lone Pine Gardens, a fantastic succulent and bonsai nursery on the edge of the picturesque town of Sebastopol, just ten miles from the beautiful Sonoma County coast. I visited Lone Pine Gardens a few years ago before my current cactus obsession but I did get a couple of small agaves at the time. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend a visit.


As small as Sebastopol is, it actually has several nurseries that I can highly recommend:

Lone Pine Gardens—Succulents, cacti, bonsai.

Peacock Horticultural Nursery—Succulents (many different kinds of agaves in 4” and 1-gallon containers), perennials, uncommon plants like farfugiums and other Asian shade plants. A great place to stop on your way to or from Bodega Bay, and reasonably priced, too.

Bamboo Sourcery—The name says it all. Read about my visit to Bamboo Sourcery last December.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Shooting bamboos

No, I’m not talking about practicing your gun skills. I’m talking about bamboo shoots rising from the earth like an army of zombies hell-bent on taking over the world. (OK, I got a bit carried away there.)

It’s the time of year when many running bamboos begin to shoot. Since we live on a small lot within the city limits, all our running bamboos are confined to containers. This limits their growth potential but I still enjoy checking for progress every day.

Here are some of the running bamboos that are shooting at the moment:

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Dwarf greenstripe (Pleioblastus viridistriatus). Its color is so electric, it makes this dark corner of our back yard glow.
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Chinese walking stick (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda). The shoots turn into culms (“canes”) in just a matter of days. This species loses its culm sheaths much more quickly than any other I’ve observed.
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Koi (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’). In addition to the two fat shoots, there’s a third one, barely visible.
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Koi (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’)
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Temple bamboo (Semiarundinaria fastuosa). The two shoots on the right are fairly wispy and won’t impress hard-core bamboo aficionados, but I love seeing even modest new growth on a potted plant.
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Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).
In this pot since 2009.
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Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra).
Six shoots so far, much thicker than the existing culms. Funny how all of the new shoots are on one side of the pot.
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Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)
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Black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra). Amazing how intricate (and odd-looking) the anatomical structures of a bamboo shoot are.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Marin County drive

A good friend from out of state was visiting this weekend so we decided to go for a drive to Marin County. Marin is located north of San Francisco; the two are connected by the Golden Gate Bridge. This is arguable one of the most beautiful spots in California, and certainly one of the most beloved by its residents.

Our first stop was Battery Spencer in the Marin Headlands. From there you have a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge towards the San Francisco. We were there at 10:30 in the morning so the light wasn’t the greatest (late afternoon is best) but it’s still a a jaw-dropping sight.

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Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from Battery Spencer

Taking Conzelman Road, we stopped at several other batteries that date back to the 1800s. Here is an interesting article about them. Most are open for exploration, and walking through the dim tunnels is lots of fun, not just for kids.

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Rodeo Beach near Marin Headlands Visitor Center

Several hours later we found ourselves in elusive Bolinas—road signs pointing to the town keep disappearing. We had a great lunch at Coast Café; be prepared for a long wait on Sundays, but the food is worth it.

From San Francisco north to Bodega Bay and beyond, one of the most striking plants you’ll see in bloom at this time of year is Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans). Native to the island of Madeira in the North Atlantic and related to the Tower of Jewels (Echium wildpretii) that we have growing in our yard, it thrives in the sunny but cool coastal climate.

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Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)

Flowers are usually purple (left in the photo below) but blue cultivars have become very popular as well. We had a variegated variety called Star of Madeira a couple of years ago and it did really well in our yard until it got killed off by frost (it’s only hardy to 30°F or so and I had forgotten to cover it).

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Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans)

Aeoniums, native to the Canary Islands, also thrive in the Marin County climate. The following two photos were taken in Bolinas.

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Several aeonium species. Check out that flower stalk!
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Aeonium (most likely canariense) nestled against a piece of driftwood

After lunch, we continued north towards Point Reyes, stopping frequently to take photos.

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Spring in Northern California distilled into one photo
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Cypress-lined country road near Bolinas
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Stand of Tasmanian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) north of Bolinas. In Marin County, eucalyptus trees are hated as much as they are loved, but it’s hard to resist the incredible fragrance that wafts into your car as you drive along a eucalyptus-lined road.

After a coffee break in Point Reyes Station, a small burg of 800 declared one of the 10 coolest towns by Budget Travel, we turned east and slowly made our way back to Davis, again stopping often to photograph the constantly changing interplay of puffy white clouds, blue sky, and electrically green hills.

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Sometimes taking a day off and going for a leisurely drive is the best thing you can do to recharge your batteries.